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BEN GELMAN: AUDUBON'S ADVENTURE IN AREA WAS SHORT, BUT IMPORTANT

BEN GELMAN: AUDUBON'S ADVENTURE IN AREA WAS SHORT, BUT IMPORTANT

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[Wed Feb 13 2002]

That the prominent American naturalist and bird painter John James Audubon spent the early part of the winter of 1810-1811 at the mouth of the Cache River in Southern Illinois has been mentioned before in this column, but not his adventures in the area later that winter.

At the time of Audubon's visit, the Illinois Territory (statehood was several years off) was still pretty much virgin forest, swamp and prairie. Settlers were few and far between.

There were still such now-extinct birds to be seen as Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and passenger pigeon. Trumpeter swans and prairie chickens - now almost extirpated - were common then. Bears and wolves roamed the woods and bison (buffalo) could still be found.

In those days, Audubon was starting out on his career of recording, with his sketchbook and paintbrush, the bird and animal life of this country, but it was a part-time occupation only.

To make a living for his wife and family he was a storekeeper in Henderson, Ky.

In an effort to expand his business, he and his partner, Ferdinand Rozier, had decided to stock a keelboat with goods and head out down the Ohio River and then up the Mississippi for Ste. Genevieve, Mo., where they had heard there was a good business opportunity.

Floating down the Ohio that December was easy, but when they reached the Cache River they learned from some Shawnee Indians that the Mississippi was choked with ice, which is why they camped in Southern Illinois for some weeks, waiting for a thaw.

Audubon recorded his further travels in the area in a diary, which was published in England in 1828 as "The Winter's Wreath" and later reprinted in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1942. His wife, Lucy, also wrote of some of his Illinois adventures in her "Life of Audubon."

Virginia Caldwell McAndrew provided a well-written synopsis of those early days of Audubon's travels in this area in the March 1944 issue of Egyptian Key Magazine.

She posed this interesting question: "If Audubon had been a successful businessman from the start, would he have made this trip to Ste. Genevieve, and if he had not made it would he ever have seen the wildlife of the forests and have become sufficiently wrought up on the subject to win fame as a result of his bird pictures?"

In any case, the shallow water of the Cache River abounded in ducks. "There were black ducks; green-winged teal with chestnut heads; shovelers or spoonbills, green and brown with white markings; pintails, dark brown with green and purple touches; and most brilliantly colored of all, wood ducks, with crested heads of iridescent green and purple streaked with white."

The country was full of wild turkey, cougar and raccoon. "As a subject to paint, Audubon liked best the wild turkey," Caldwell wrote. "It is Plate No. 1 in his book of bird paintings."

When the weather broke, Audubon and his partner started up the Mississippi River. He found some helpers opposite Cape Girardeau. Together they used "cordelles" (strong rope made from bison sinews) to pull their boat as they walked along the shore, making headway against he current at only about one mile an hour.

They successfully negotiated the dangerous currents around Grand Tower Rock (where Audubon saw his first bald eagle) and eventually reached Ste. Genevieve.

"The little old French town did not appeal to Audubon," McAndrew wrote. "Because he wanted the beauties of nature and home, he sold his share of the merchandise to Rozier."

With only his dog for company, he crossed the Mississippi and started back to Henderson on foot, making more than 40 miles a day, despite having to traverse swamps and forests. He swam the Big Muddy River, saw herds of deer, stayed one night at a squatter's cabin and another at an Indian camp, finally reaching Shawneetown and then - 47 miles farther on - home at Henderson, Ky.

Audubon returned to Southern Illinois the following May, where he found an abundance of birds and wildflowers to paint.

While the bear, cougar and bison are long gone and some of the birds are extinct, many of the same species that Audubon saw are still with us in Southern Illinois, "perpetual reminders of eternal life," wrote McAndrew.

BEN GELMAN is the former Sunday news editor for The Southern Illinoisan and is an avid bird watcher.

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